A book has been written on the use of the Scriptures by the Desert Fathers, and while I have not read it in its entirety, much of it can be accessed online and may be of help:http://books.google.com/books?id=SIa0mNas_5MC&lpg=PP1&dq=word%20in%20the%20desert&pg=PA107#v=onepage&q&f=false
I do not recall St. Anthony having a copy of the Scriptures with him in the fortress, but if you have a specific quote regarding this perhaps you could share it. In the desert, some monks were literate and some were not. Some spoke strongly against having any possessions, including books or copies of the Scriptures. The churches where the ascetics would gather would probably have a copy of the Scriptures, and it seems that those who could read were allowed to spend time outside of the services reading the Scriptures in the church. Those who were literate would copy out what they found valuable. Those who were illiterate would still hear the Scriptures read in church, and in the verbal counsels of the elders, and would commit the Scriptures to memory.
Of course, the situation of monks in the desert is not comparable to our lives today in the world, where the majority of people are literate and are taking in a tremendous quantity and variety of impressions and content through various means. St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century stated that it was even more important for those in the world to read the Scriptures than it was for monks. He said that those in the world should labor to acquire copies of the Scriptures even though doing so was very expensive. In the very least, according to him, one should labor to acquire one book of the Gospels.
Here is a quote from St. John regarding the importance of Scripture reading for the laity:“I am not,” you will say, “one of the monks, but I have both a wife and children, and the care of a household.” Why, this is what hath ruined all, your supposing that the reading of the divine Scriptures appertains to those only, when ye need it much more than they. For they that dwell in the world, and each day receive wounds, these have most need of medicines. So that it is far worse than not reading, to account the thing even “superfluous:” for these are the words of diabolical invention. Hear ye not Paul saying, “that all these things are written for our admonition”?
Of course, these words from St. John bring us to shame, for many of us have not just one copy of the Scriptures but several different translations, and yet we do not read them or reflect on them as we should. In the Desert, fathers would spend a year or more struggling to live out a single verse from the Scriptures, whereas we can easily read the Scriptures through in their entirety in a single year without applying any of it. I wonder what St. John Chrysostom would say to us if he were alive today?
Here is a link to some additional quotes from St. John Chrysostom regarding the importance of knowing and reading the Scriptures:http://www.saintjonah.org/chrysostom_scripture.htmhttp://www.orthodox.net/journal/2011-09-08-saint-john-chrysostom-on-the-necessity-of-reading-scripture-daily.html